Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Of Nurses And Their Self-Esteem

On November 6th, I published a blog post entitled "For Nurses, 'Just" Is A Four-Letter Word". The basic premise was that nurses' use of language that diminishes their expertise and importance has a far-reaching impact. That post has received a great deal of attention, so I believe I struck a nerve that resonates deeply with many nurses out there. (Thank you for all of the wonderful comments, by the way!) So, why is our self-esteem so collectively low?

In the aforementioned post, I made the following statement:
If you're a nurse, when was the last time you said, "Oh, I'm just a nurse" or "I'm not really an expert--I'm just a nurse"? If you stop to think about it, what are you really saying when you deny your expertise? Words are powerful, and the words we use to describe ourselves can have far-reaching effects--for others, and within our own psyches.
Yes, words are indeed powerful, and when was the last time you heard a doctor say, "Oh, I'm just a doctor"? (One could argue that a family practitioner at a medical conference might feel somewhat inferior to a brain surgeon, but you get the idea.....)

Despite our place in the collective cultural psyche as trustworthy and honest professionals (even while so many laypeople have no idea what nurses actually do), so many nurses seem to feel it necessary to diminish our profession by playing down our importance and our professionalism. Why? 

Is It Patriarchy?

Now, one could argue that the dominant patriarchal culture has historically instilled in women a feeling of inequality, and one could then make the leap that nurses (who are predominantly female) have internalized that oppression and turned it upon themselves in reaction to dominant beliefs about gender and power (and, perhaps, intelligence). And with only 9.6% of American nurses being male, this could be a valid hypothesis.

One could also argue that the medical profession is still a patriarchal system within the larger patriarchy. Moreover, even with the numerous women taking places of power and influence among physicians, the old structures of medical patriarchy continue to diminish the importance of nurses, resulting in nurses collectively and individually internalizing this oppression and taking on the yoke of continued subservience and inferiority. (And some might also argue that many women doctors are--consciously or not--upholding patriarchal aspects of the medical profession's "Old Boy" network.)


Or Is It Just Us? 

Patriarchy is a great target for placing the blame, and we can probably make a good case that patriarchal belief systems, no matter how regularly and thoroughly dismantled by powerful feminist voices, bear some responsibility for how nurses feel about themselves.

That said, there is also self-responsibility to take into consideration, and nurses must be hyper-aware of the language that they use to describe themselves, their profession, and what we do as nurses.

We are beholden as nurses to own our expertise, seize our power, and speak with voices of compassionate authority.

Seizing Our Power

Like I said in my previous post:
Face it, you're a nurse and you're an expert when it comes to being a nurse. And in the eyes of the general public, you're part of a special breed whom they see as either angels, saints or some other superlative creature.
You are not "just" a nurse. You're a nurse, and nurses can be described as both the lifeblood and the backbone of the entire healthcare industry. Take away nurses, and the system as a whole would cease to function.

We're not simple handmaidens to the all-knowing physicians (like it was in the bad old days). We're skilled in the art and science of nursing, and this art/science is made more powerful by decades of research, practice, theory, skill-building and knowledge accumulation.
Some of my readers commented on the previous post that perhaps nurses diminish themselves and use words like "just a nurse" or "only a nurse" due to fatigue, overwhelm and burnout. This effectively discredits nurses, stripping them of professionalism and thus, their level of responsibility.

If we are to seize our power as nurses who ostensibly practice an art and a science, our languaging is crucial. While "just" is a four-letter word that we certainly must strike from our vocabulary (especially when appended to the word "nurse"), we also need to strike "only" from our lexicon as well. Come to think of it, there are probably many more words that nurses use to discredit and disempower themselves (perhaps so many that we need a "dictionary of non-usage" for nurses to tattoo on their arms as a reminder!)

There's More To Say

Obviously, based on the reactions to my recent post (and the potential for more reactions to this one), there's a lot more to say about these issues.

Suffice it to say, there is a growing cohort of nurses who refuse to accept any diminishing of our collective power, and those of us willing to do so will continue to shine a (sometimes uncomfortable) light on how we hurt and disempower ourselves.

So, nurses, think about what you say when you're talking or writing about our profession. Take pride in who you are and what you do, as well as in the contributions we continue to make to health, science, medicine, and the general public good.

As nurses, our self-esteem should be through the roof. And if it's not, we have a great deal more work to do!

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